Saturday, July 21, 2012

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Leaving Cuba: The difficult task of exiting the island

Exhibit at Cuba's Biennial art fair The issue of emigration and travel is now a matter of public discussion in Cuba - even artists are getting in on the act
Cubans need permission to leave their island. And if they stay away too long, they can't come back.
A year ago, President Raul Castro pledged to "update" the country's migration laws and allow freedom of movement. So far, the restrictions remain in place.
But as parliament prepares for the first of two annual sessions on Monday, Cubans are daring to hope that change might finally be imminent.
In Havana, they form long queues every morning outside the city's emigration offices. Clutching bundles of documents and photographs, many arrive well before the gates open at 08:00 to ensure an appointment.
The official noticeboard in the grounds of the Vedado district office is covered in yellow papers, detailing the many rules and regulations.
Would-be travellers need a letter of invitation from the person they want to visit (fee: $200, £128) and permission to leave their place of work. For graduate professionals, that means a letter signed by a minister. They also need $150 for the exit permit, more than seven times the average monthly salary.
Government critics can be refused permission to travel. Highly-valued professionals, like doctors, face extra restrictions.
Reform hopes "As far as I know, Cuba is the only country with these rules. They shouldn't exist," argues Yenier Prado, who had to wait four months to get his exit permit.
His family already live in the United States and he had an American visa to join them. But first Cuba had to agree he could leave.
People queuing at an emigration office in Havana In Havana, Cubans form long queues outside the emigration offices every morning
"The procedure is too much, and it's very expensive," complains Adanay Martin, who is hoping to travel for Mexico to study for a masters in computer science.
"I don't agree with it, they have to get rid of it. But at least they're talking about that now. It's a step forward," she says, after submitting her own application for an exit permit.
At the Communist Party Congress last April, Cuba announced hundreds of once unimaginable social and economic reforms intended to safeguard the socialist system. Private business opportunities were expanded, people were allowed to buy houses and cars, and free travel was established as a principle.
In August, President Raul Castro confirmed that Cuba's migration policy would be altered - recognition, he said, that some regulations once justified in defence of the 1959 revolution had "persisted unnecessarily".
Cuba says it closed its borders soon after the revolution as a matter of national security: the US, just 90 miles away, was the base for fierce opposition to the Castro regime.
The government was also battling a brain-drain, accusing the US of poaching its best-trained citizens to undermine the revolution.

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There is still fear and prejudice about migration, still a way to go. But I think the will for change is there”
Nadal Antelmo Cuban artists
Even today, any Cuban who reaches the US is entitled to residency after one year.
"The rules were established to control who could come and go, but I think circumstances are different and Cubans should be allowed to travel with just a passport," argues Rafael Hernandez, editor of the social science journal Tema.
The announcement of change was widely anticipated at the last session of parliament in December. Instead, Raul Castro spoke of a "complex issue" and said change would come "gradually".
So all eyes are now on the next National Assembly on Monday, where there is a cautious hope that progress will be made.
"I think the consensus [for change] is pretty large. But there is some resistance to changing a policy of almost 50 years," says Mr Hernandez.
"There are people in the leadership who think perhaps there will be a brain drain. But I don't think it will be more than we have now," he says. "If we make this change at last, those who leave will also be able to return. They will not be lost to Cuba forever."
Breaking through Currently, anyone who stays overseas for more than 11 months loses residency rights. According to the National Statistics Office, 38,165 people were "lost" in that way in 2010 alone.
For many years, those who left the island were seen as traitors, enemies of the revolution. The rhetoric has changed, with official recognition that many Cubans leave for economic reasons.
It's now argued that easing the travel restrictions would allow those who work abroad to maintain their ties with the island, and potentially return with new expertise and - critically - funds.
The issue is now a matter of public discussion.
one house in a city side street was decked-out as an airport, at art Biennial The exhibition explores changing attitudes to migration
At this summer's art Biennial there was a silhouette of a plane breaking through fencing on the sea front and images of the Malecon sea wall, made of barbed wire.
And one house in a city side street was decked-out as an airport, with human-like figures poking through windows and hanging from ceilings.
"When we started this project some of my friends told me we'd be arrested, that we couldn't do it," remembers the artist Nadal Antelmo. His exhibition explored the changing nature of emigration, and the use of the word gusano or "worm" for those who left.
"I think it would have been hard to study this theme in the past, and to put it in the street like this for people to interact with. So I think there's a change," Nadal says, surrounded by his statues.
"There is still fear and prejudice about migration, still a way to go. But I think the will for change is there."
But that will still hasn't been converted into concrete policy.
More than a year after Cubans were promised their country would open up, and allow free travel, they're still waiting.

Analysis: Assad's grip on Syria has become tenuous

BEIRUT (AP) — The Assad family's grip on Syria has never looked so tenuous.
After 17 months of violence and an estimated 17,000 people killed, a lightning-quick turnaround in the momentum of the civil war has put President Bashar Assad's forces on the defensive, a sign that his once-impenetrable family dynasty is wobbling.
For the first time, the rebels have brought a sustained fight to Damascus, the seat of Assad's power, in a powerful signal that the regime cannot protect its own capital. On Friday, reports of intense fighting in Aleppo, Syria's second city, suggest the rebels are making a run on another major government stronghold.
And now, more than ever before during the four-decade Assad dynasty, there are signs that the inner circle is unraveling. A stunning rebel bombing that killed four of Assad's top lieutenants Wednesday was a strike that almost certainly involved the hand of a trusted insider.
The coming days will be crucial to determining whether the regime can recover from blow after devastating blow, which have eviscerated any sense that the head of one of the Middle East's most autocratic states can hold on indefinitely.
Trying to retain their grip on power, regime forces are stretched to the limit. The government is pulling its most powerful troops from around the country to reinforce Damascus, which allows rebels to swoop in and take over key areas after the soldiers abandon their positions or leave them only lightly guarded.
In the past two days, rebels seized border crossings in Iraq and Turkey, ushering in scenes of bloody chaos. Truck driver Ahmet Celik said Friday he was nearly killed near the Bab al-Hawa crossing in Turkey when rebels fought for control.
"The gunfire lasted till the morning," Celik said. "We barely survived."
A stream of high-level defections points to growing unease among the most privileged classes who count on the regime for their livelihoods and perks. Brig. Gen. Manaf Tlass, an Assad confidant and son of a former defense minister, defected to France earlier this month.
Although the government still has the firepower to hang on — possibly for months or more — the future is bleak.
The increasingly sectarian overtones to much of the violence suggest any power vacuum will usher in a bloodbath pitting Syria's majority Sunni population against the Assad family's minority Alawite sect, which is an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
Sunnis make up most of Syria's 22 million people, as well as the backbone of the opposition. But Assad is relying heavily on his Alawite power base to crush the uprising, prompting revenge attacks and fear among other minorities that they face retribution if the regime falls.
The opposition, which is fractious and lacks any real central command, has no hope of pacifying the country. There is no clear candidate to step in and lead should Assad go. And the violence has become far more unstable than many had ever imagined, with al-Qaida and other extremists joining the ranks of those fighting to topple the regime.
Thousands of Syrians are not waiting around to find out what comes next.
Families are fleeing into Lebanon, arriving in packed buses, taxis and private cars. Iraq is sending planes to evacuate its residents, and Capt. Saad al-Khafaji of the state-owned Iraqi Airways promised to "continue the flights until there are no Iraqis left" in Syria.
The idea of Iraqis fleeing Syria would have been unthinkable in recent years — thousands of them fled to Syria to escape widespread sectarian fighting during the worst of violence in their homeland between 2005 and 2007.
Now, the traffic is going the other way, with Iraqis and Syrian refugees heading east.
Despite the rebel gains, the battle for Syria is not over yet. Although the rebels appear more powerful than at any stage of the uprising, their small-caliber weapons and rampant disorganization will make it all but impossible to defeat the regime in direct battle.
The rebels also have failed to hold territory for any significant amount of time, which prevents them from carving out a zone akin to Libya's Benghazi, where opponents of Moammar Gadhafi launched their successful uprising last year.
Already, Syrian government forces are starting to drive the rebels out of pockets of Damascus. On Friday, government forces showed off a battle-scarred neighborhood of the capital that they say has been "cleansed" of fighters, but rebels say it was a tactical retreat that will allow them to expand their guerrilla war in the coming days and weeks.
The regime has tried to portray a sense of calm control — but the country is in a state of profound unease. Assad has not spoken to the public and he was a no-show Friday at the funerals for the security officials killed by the Wednesday bombing.
The only sign of Assad since the attack was a brief, soundless video clip on state TV.
The dire situation for the Assad government is unprecedented. The president took power upon his father's death in 2000, inheriting a brutal legacy.
Assad's father, Hafez, crushed a Sunni uprising in 1982 by shelling the town of Hama. Amnesty International has claimed that 10,000-25,000 were killed, though conflicting figures exist and the Syrian government has made no official estimate.
Hafez Assad ruled the country for the next two decades until his death, and the massacre was seared into the minds of Syrians. As the uprising began to take shape last year, Assad immediately fell back on the tactics that have kept his family in power.
But the onslaught has failed to crush the rumblings of dissent, and now it seems everyone is preparing for the worst — a future of revenge killings and chaos, more scenes of desperate violence and a spate of bloody anarchy akin to Iraq after Saddam Hussein's fall in 2003.
___
Kennedy is The Associated Press chief of bureau for Syria and Lebanon.

Syrian forces launch all-out Damascus assault

Syrian forces have launched an all-out assault on opposition strongholds in Damascus, after rebels seized crossings on the Iraq and Turkey borders amid a heavy death toll.
Rebel fighters also clashed with troops in several neighbourhoods of Aleppo on Friday in what the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said was the fiercest fighting so far in Syria's second city.
At the United Nations, the Security Council voted unanimously to give a "final" 30-day extension to a troubled observer mission that was charged with overseeing a peace plan for Syria but which suspended its operations on June 16 in the face of mounting violence.
Friday's vote followed emergency consultations just hours before the expiry of the 300-strong mission's mandate, after Russia threatened to use its veto powers as a council permanent member for the second time in as many days.
In Syria, state television trumpeted the news of the military's Damascus offensive.
"Our brave army forces have completely cleansed the area of Midan in Damascus of the remaining mercenary terrorists and have re-established security," it said, using the regime term for rebels.
Reporters taken on a regime-organised trip of Midan saw three bodies, empty streets, shuttered shops and buildings pockmarked with bullet holes.
The counter-offensive by the army came after a Wednesday bombing killed four senior members of the regime, including the national security chief, who died on Friday.
General Hisham Ikhtiyar had been wounded along with Interior Minister Mohammed al-Shaar in the National Security headquarters bombing, which was claimed by the Free Syrian Army (FSA).
Defence Minister General Daoud Rajha, President Bashar al-Assad's brother-in-law Assef Shawkat and General Hassan Turkmani, head of the regime's crisis cell on the uprising, were all killed in the explosion.
A state funeral was held for the three in Damascus on Friday ahead of their burials in their native provinces, the official SANA news agency reported, adding that Vice President Faruq al-Shara had attended but not Assad himself.
A security source told AFP the army was now in control of the Damascus neighbourhoods of Midan, Tadamon, Qaboon and Barzeh, while fierce clashes were reported in other districts including Jubar, Mazzeh and Kfar Sousa.
The Observatory also reported intense fighting in several neighbourhoods of Aleppo and said troops opened fire on a large demonstration in the city, Syria's commercial centre.
It said 177 people were killed nationwide, including 119 civilians, at least seven of them children.
The deaths came after 302 people were killed on Thursday, the deadliest day of the uprising so far.
Amnesty International said the rebels too could be held criminally responsible for the deaths of civilians as they took the fight to residential areas of the large cities.
An AFP photographer reported that FSA fighters fought a raging battle with Syrian troops at the Bab al-Hawa border post with Turkey and that some 150 rebels controlled the crossing on Friday.
Three more generals crossed into Turkey, bringing to 24 the number of generals who have defected to Syria's northern neighbour, a foreign ministry diplomat told AFP.
On Thursday, Iraq's deputy interior minister Adnan al-Assadi told AFP that the FSA had seized control of all three crossings along their common border.
At the Albu Kamal border point, an AFP photographer saw a watchtower apparently empty and immigration buildings deserted.
But later in the day, medics and rebel fighters reported heavy shelling by the army of Albu Kamal town.
Residents on the Iraqi side of the border said that relatives in the town were desperately trying to cross but that they were being turned back by Iraqi troops.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki called on the United Nations on Friday to intervene to provide safe passage for Iraqis escaping the escalating violence in Syria.
The Iraqi government also warned it would not be able to assist Syrians looking to escape the bloodshed.
At the United Nations, Security Council permanent members Russia and China both voted in favour of a resolution extending the mandate of the UN Supervision Mission in Syria for a "final" 30 days, a day after blocking another text that could have imposed sanctions on the regime.
Thursday's vetoes sparked Western outrage but Russian ambassador Vitaly Churkin had threatened to use Moscow's veto again.
US National Security Adviser Thomas Donilon will head to China on Sunday, in the wake of Beijing and Moscow's veto, and will also visit Japan, the White House announced.
Russia had wanted an unconditional extension of the mission for a renewable 45 days.
Russia and Western members of the Security Council remained divided over whether the resolution means the end of UNSMIS.
The text says the council renews UNSMIS for "a final period of 30 days" and stresses the "increasingly dangerous security situation" in Syria.
But it adds that the council would be willing to look at a further extension if UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon "reports and the Security Council confirms the cessation of the use of heavy weapons and a reduction in the level of violence sufficient to allow UNSMIS to implement its mandate."
US ambassador Susan Rice said it would be "unlikely" that the violence in Syria would ease enough to allow a continued UN presence.

Movie theater gunman had been stockpiling arsenal


By Jason Sickles, Yahoo! | The Lookout –

AURORA, Colo. The gunman who blasted his way through a packed movie house early on Friday, killing 12 people and injuring 58 others, had apparently been planning his attack for weeks.
"In the last 60 days he purchased four guns at local metro gun shops, and through the Internet he purchased over 6,000 rounds of ammunition," Aurora Police Chief Daniel Oates said Friday night.
The suspect, 24-year-old former medical student James Holmes, had also been stockpiling magazines to carry the gun ammunition. One clip recovered at the scene could hold 100 rounds for his assault rifle.
"As far as we know, it was a pretty rapid pace of fire in that theater," Chief Oates said.
Police are trying to learn more about the man's motives but have thus far been unable to access his booby-trapped apartment near the Colorado medical school where he recently withdrew from classes.
Investigators have described the apartment as being filled with chemicals, trip wires, jars of ammunition and possible mortar rounds.
"It is a very vexing problem how we'll get into that apartment safely," Chief Oates said. "I've personally never seen anything like what the pictures show us."

A law enforcement official familiar with the explosives left in the suspect's apartment described them as "pretty sophisticated" improvised explosive devices.
"These are not ordinary pipe bombs," said the investigator, who told Yahoo News on the condition his name would not be used. "No doubt it was meant to kill or maim any first responder that went into that apartment."
Officials said it could be Saturday or later before they get the suspect's home defused. If not, the investigator told Yahoo News, serious damage to the entire apartment building is a risk.
The thermal liquids left behind "could certainly heat up that room pretty quickly," he said. "We're not going to destroy a building."
Holmes is being held in the Arapahoe County Jail. Chief Oates said the man has an attorney, but refused to say if the alleged gunman is cooperating.
"I won't talk about his admissions," the police chief said. "The most important thing is that there is justice for these victims, and justice will occur in a courtroom."
Holmes is scheduled to make his first court appearance at 8:30 a.m. local time on Monday in Aurora.
Witnesses have given chilling descriptions of the scene at the movie theater.
"He was dressed in head-to-toe armor and looked like he meant business," said Jordan Crofter, who escaped the theater unharmed. "He just walked around like he was having fun. It was just target practice. His goal was to kill as many people as he could."
The number of casualties makes the incident one of the largest mass shootings in recent U.S. history.
What provoked the madness may not be clear anytime soon.
Holmes, a former college honors graduate who moved to Colorado to attend medical school, is not talking to investigators, a law enforcement official briefed on the investigation told The Associated Press.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity in discussing the ongoing case. Police also found jars of chemicals in Holmes' booby-trapped Aurora apartment with wires nearby.
"This is the act … of a very deranged mind," said Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper.
Aurora Police Chief Dan Oates said hundreds of calls came in starting at 12:39 a.m. MDT on Friday, and officers were on the scene within 60 to 90 seconds. Some 200 officers eventually responded.
It is believed that Holmes acted alone, and the FBI said there was no indication of ties to any terrorist groups.
While some witnesses said the gunman entered through a side-door emergency exit at the front of the theater, a federal law enforcement official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Holmes bought a ticket and went into the theater as part of the crowd.
The official said Holmes then apparently propped open an exit door in the theater as the movie was playing, donned the protective ballistic gear and opened fire, the AP reported.
Chief Oates said officers found an AR-15 assault rifle—the civilian form of the M-16—a Remington 12-guage shotgun and a .40-caliber Glock handgun in the theater and another identical handgun in the car. The gunman set off two devices that released a smoke or an irritant to distract the crowd.
"There were bullet (casings) just falling on my head. They were burning my forehead," said Jennifer Seeger, one of the first to spot Holmes as he stormed inside.
"I was just a deer in headlights. I didn't know what to do," she said. Then she ducked to the ground as the gunman shot people seated behind her.
She said she began crawling toward an exit when she saw a girl of about 14 "lying lifeless on the stairs." She saw a man with a bullet wound in his back and tried to check his pulse, but "I had to go. I was going to get shot."
"Every few seconds it was just: Boom, boom, boom," Seeger said. "He would reload and shoot and anyone who would try to leave would just get killed."
Some of the victims were treated for chemical exposure apparently related to canisters thrown by the gunman. Those hurt included a 4-month-old baby, who was treated at a hospital and released.
New York City's police commissioner said he was told the gunman had painted his hair red and called himself the Joker—Batman's nemesis—but Aurora police would not confirm that.
For a few moments, many moviegoers thought the initial commotion might have been a promotional stunt tied to the film's opening.
Quentin Caldwell said they were about 15 minutes into the film when he heard a very distinct "pop, pop, pop, pop."
"My wife jumped, and I just kind of sat there like, 'Oh, it was probably just really good special sound effects,'" he told CNN.
But Caldwell and his wife soon saw injured people and knew they needed to escape.
"There were people still sitting there waiting for the movie to continue," he said. "I looked at them like, 'This is real, there's something wrong, we need to leave now.'"
Those who knew Holmes as a youth describe him as a shy, intelligent person raised in California by parents who were active in their well-to-do suburban San Diego neighborhood. He played soccer at Westview High School and ran cross-country before going to college, the AP reported.
A University of Colorado-Denver spokeswoman said Holmes enrolled in a Ph.D. program in neuroscience a year ago but was in the process of withdrawing at the time of the shooting.
Police released a statement from Holmes' family: "Our hearts go out to those who were involved in this tragedy and to the families and friends of those involved."
It was the worst mass shooting in the U.S. since the Nov. 5, 2009, attack at Fort Hood, Texas. An Army psychiatrist is awaiting trial for killing 13 soldiers and civilians and wounding more than two dozen others.
In Colorado, it was the deadliest since the Columbine High School massacre on April 20, 1999, when two students opened fire in the Denver suburb of Littleton, killing 12 classmates and a teacher and wounding 26 others before killing themselves. Columbine High is about 12 miles from the theater.
(This story was compiled by reports from Associated Press writers P. Solomon Banda and Thomas Peipert, and Yahoo! News staffers Tim Skillern, Tim Sprinkle, Ron Recinto and Torrey AndersonSchoepe.)